The war was just too big, confided Eric Kennington after he had completed his masterpiece ‘The Kensingtons at Laventie’ in 1915, one of the first things you’ll see in the ‘Memory’ section of this captivating two-part show. The authorities had hoped that Kennington would make more paintings to rival his pin-sharp, quietly devastating depiction of his unit – knackered, wounded, each soldier caught in a moment of reflection after their march back to billets from the trenches. But he couldn’t do it. The war was just too big.
Compare Kennington’s painting with the canvas that kicks off the preceding section of the show, ‘Truth’ – William Barnes Wollen’s ‘2nd Ox & Bucks defeating the Prussian Guard at Nonne Bosschen’ (1914) – and you’ll see just how much had changed in the world, in art, in just a year. Wollen carved his reputation reconstructing famous battle scenes in paint for a patriotic home crowd and he paints war from a distance, like it’s a game of football. Kennington’s painting, by contrast, focuses on an everyday scene of stillness, but it’s easily the more epic.
The war changed everything, of course. The biggest shift in art, though, was that WWI was a conflict depicted by the soldiers themselves. And because their work carried with it the weight of authenticity, suspiciously regarded modernist styles started to be viewed sympathetically by a geographically distant, uncomprehending public. CRW Nevinson, a medical orderly, took the fractured language of futurism and used it to show human will being bent to the machine. Paul Nash, invalided back to England just before his division was virtually annihilated in battle, returned to the front as an official war artist to create surrealism-inflected landscapes strung with barbed wire and haunted by ominous clouds.
Perhaps the most surprising figure among them, though is William Orpen: the society portraitist who became a painter of bone-white terrains populated with unburied corpses and the detritus of battle. There’s an eerie objectivity to these devastated scenes. Orpen quotes Goya. The printmaker Percy John Delf Smith quotes Holbein and Dürer in a ‘Dance of Death’ series, in which Death itself appears to flinch at the depravity.
Everywhere truth and memory intertwine and overlap. The slippage between the two is such that the show quickly starts to question its curatorial divisions. But that in no way lessens its effect. ‘Truth and Memory’ lacks a few masterpieces – Stanley Spencer in particular seems under-represented. But, in a centenary year of WWI exhibitions, displays and tributes you won’t find a better illustration of the war’s impact or its legacy.